All season, Missouri coach Quin Snyder has been preaching the virtues of defense to his young Tiger team.
“I’ve been taking people out of the game when they aren’t guarding,” Snyder said. “I can’t get them out quick enough when they’re not playing defense.”
On Tuesday at Mizzou Sports Arena, Missouri’s emphasis on defense paid dividends early against Arkansas. Defense kept Missouri in the game despite a miserable offensive performance, but the Tigers’ shooting woes proved insurmountable. Arkansas simply overran Missouri, sealing a 62-52 win with a 10-2 closing run.
“I feel good about our defense,” junior guard Jimmy McKinney said. “I think we stepped it up tonight. We’re just having a hard time putting the ball in the basket.”
The Tigers started the game by going almost a full eight minutes without a field goal, turning the ball over five times in that span. Even with the slow start, Missouri trailed by no more than five in the first half and two at halftime. For one of the first times this season, the Tigers played stingy defense as a team, with five Missouri players earning steals. Missouri had 13 steals and kept the game competitive by converting Arkansas mistakes into baskets.
“One thing I did feel was that we became closer to buying in completely as a team,” Snyder said. “I thought our defensive effort was better, but we still had some breakdowns that hurt us at times.”
Missouri had 16 points off turnovers, as the Razorbacks struggled to take care of the ball, committing 19 turnovers.
But even with the transitional game, Missouri shot only 17-for-57 (29.8 percent) for the night, committing 18 turnovers.
“You put a lot of pressure on your defense when you can’t convert,” Snyder said.
Freshmen Marshall Brown and Kalen Grimes made large contributions, sparking the Tigers’ defense and making rare contributions on offense. Brown had a steal and 10 points. Grimes had a block and five points.
“This is a team that usually scores around 80 points and we held them to 60,” Brown said. “That means we played them hard. We just have to start knocking down our own shots.”
Snyder said it was the defensive effort that has helped the freshmen earn their minutes on the court.
“Anybody right now that comes in and can guard makes a case for playing,” Snyder said. “We’ve got some guys that have been our more productive players and they’re struggling right now, so those guys can come in and impact the game.”
For as long as the offense struggles, the defense will have to be Missouri’s saving grace.
“The answer to that is not to worry about all that stuff, but to continue to guard,” Snyder said. “The thing we did tonight, we kept ourselves in the game by playing defense. The more we focus on our defense, the more we can generate offense from our defense. That can help your confidence.”